NFL rule-makers got their wish in Week 1 of the 2023 season. The league recorded a historically low 20.5% kickoff return rate, the desired result of a new rule that encourages teams to kick unreturnable balls.
The return rate was the lowest in a single week of games since at least 2000, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Although there is no data prior to that, it was likely the lowest in league history as well based on the relative frequency of returns in earlier eras. The Week 1 touchback rate of 77.6% was the highest since 2000 and likely a league record.
In May, owners approved a one-year experimental rule that would spot the ball at the 25-yard line even if kickoff returners called for a fair catch inside the 25. The rule all but eliminated the advantage of using “pop-up” kicks short of the goal line, which had grown in popularity as a strategy for pinning teams close to their goal line. That approach had increased the total number of returns during the past two seasons, causing a corresponding rise in concussions on the play.
Noting that concussions occur at a higher rate on kickoffs than any other play, the NFL’s competition committee decided to further incentivize teams to avoid returns, at least for this season.
In Week 1, there were a total of 32 returns and one fair catch on kickoffs. The average starting position for a team’s possession after a kickoff return was the 25-yard line, so in the aggregate, teams didn’t benefit from choosing to return over a fair catch or touchback.
Typically, return rates rise and touchback rates fall over the course of the season, as weather cools and the ball is less likely to travel into the end zone. The league has projected that the rule would result in a touchback rate of approximately 70% over the course of the full season, with a corresponding 15% drop in concussions on the play.
In an interview this summer, competition committee chairman Rich McKay said that reducing concussions via fewer returns is an “OK result for this year.” But he said the method is “not preferred,” he added. “None of that is preferred.”
As a result, the league has been researching more significant rule changes that could elevate the return rate without raising concussion numbers. One alternative, McKay acknowledged, is the low-impact alignment the XFL used during the 2020 and 2023 seasons. In essence, that version moves most of the players on the field away from the kicker and toward the returner to reduce high-speed collisions.